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Eden’s Ridge Hearth Cookery Society explores food ways of the past (with photo gallery)

Amanda J. Vicars • Jan 11, 2016 at 4:30 PM

Exchange Place, a mid-19th century living history farm in Kingsport, has given rise to all manner of hands-on learning opportunities for the region’s historically-enthused youth. Students in the Junior Apprentice program, led by Exchange Place volunteer Heather Gilreath, have been carefully selected for their interest in history to participate in (and publicly demonstrate) period-specific farm chores from animal tending and gardening to soap making and cookery as they would have been done in 1850.

“I make sure [the prospective apprentices] are serious history buffs and serious about committing to being living historians bringing the past to life for visitors at Exchange Place,” Gilreath revealed. “This is so much more than visiting a museum. These kids get to immerse themselves in history.”

Gilreath, who began volunteering at Exchange Place in 2005, found her niche cooking in the living history farm’s hearthside kitchen with former volunteer Sherri Hyder. When Hyder retired from her post preparing traditional Appalachian fare in 2010, Gilreath took the lead. Gilreath said several of the dozen or so Junior Apprentices underneath her direction - a mixture of public, private and home-schooled boys and girls ages 12 to 18 - displayed a fervor for the food ways of the past, and thus the Eden’s Ridge Hearth Cookery Society was formed around the fire of the kitchen’s open hearth. (Eden’s Ridge was the name of the community surrounding Exchange Place in the 19th century.)

“I think that the Eden’s Ridge Hearth Cookery Society adds so much to the Exchange Place atmosphere,” said adult member Pam Haines. “It is a wonderful place to come and let your mind wonder through the thoughts of the past and the present!”

Society members, clad in period clothing, offer hearthside demonstrations during Exchange Place’s four seasonal festivals held throughout the year.

“They are inspired by period cookbooks as well as handwritten 'receipt' (recipe) books prepared by women who lived in this region in the antebellum period,” Gilreath described. “Additionally, the society chooses a theme to guide their menus. This year’s focus was on the food ways of the major European cultures that settled in Appalachia - English, Scots-Irish and German.”

Gilreath said that to prepare for the festivals, the apprentices also attend private workshops throughout the year. The more the apprentices cook, the more privileges they receive in the kitchen. “I have three high school juniors and seniors who have been cooking with me several years,” she explained.

The fireside expositions allow the Junior Apprentices and, likewise, the viewing public to get a “glimpse of what it was like to do the cooking” despite socioeconomic status (whether a slave or a plantation mistress) in this area during the time period of 1830-1860. “[The society] is unique because it really and truly gives them a complex hands-on learning experience,” Gilreath said.

The Eden’s Ridge Hearth Cookery Society not only cooks over a hearth, but the apprentices plant and tend the crops needed to prepare the meals and even chop the wood used in the fire. “There’s a lot of cleaning, preparing, and wood chopping,” Gilreath confirmed. “[This program] was really designed to teach these students these skills.”

Apprentice Cade Campbell, 13, said “It is amazing how many strange and old plants have slowly faded out of existence in the vegetable garden. They had root vegetables that tasted like oysters, melons that tasted like citrus fruit, [etc.]…They also didn’t only use things that they grew purposefully in the garden... Everything was used back then.”

“I have really enjoyed the chance to learn the art of cooking over an open fire,” said 15-year-old Elizabeth Dotson. “I’ve had a great time cooking the historic recipes with my friends, and also getting to taste the final dishes.”

Exchange Place is located at 4812 Orebank Road in Kingsport. For more information, visit http://exchangeplace.info, write to email@exchangeplace.info, or call 423-288-6071.